The Corner

Newsflash: The Sky Is Not a Crystal Dome

Denis:

I’ll sign on to some of the reservations people have about Craig Venter the guy. Sure, he’s got a streak of showmanship, and sure, he buys PC cred with nonsensical statements about population genetics.

This latest work is a real scientific achievement though. Your own words tell us that.

Craig Venter’s stuffing of a synthesized genome into a bacterial shell…

Yes, it’s a synthesized genome. And it replicates just like the genomes of the natural world. That’s the advance. It hasn’t been done before. (Unless you want to count viral replication, which biologists mostly don’t.)

it’s not like Venter built himself a new cell from nothing…

Actually, it is rather like that. The cells that were replicating after a few dozen generations were being built up on instructions coded in that genome. They were new cells.

The standard you seem to be asking for is that researchers truck in some supplies of granular carbon, canisters of oxygen and hydrogen, slabs of pig iron, and so on, and produce a living cell. That would be a cute demonstration, but science doesn’t proceed like that. Even in-organic chemistry doesn’t. Science advances incrementally, doing things that weren’t done before. What Venter did has never been done before. These cells have no ancestors.

Logic-splitting about what qualifies as “creating life” won’t alter the fact that life is a chemical process, with no invisible spirits involved. Venter’s latest work doesn’t prove that because it doesn’t need to – biologists have known it for decades. It just makes it a few percent even harder to deny.

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